Best of the Decade Derby: The Best Romantic Comedy of the Decade…

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? / Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001, Pedro Costa)

It’s true. It’s hard for me to think of a film from the 2000s that’s as worthy of carrying the mantle of The Awful Truth or Bringing Up Baby, much less one that’s as intimate and perceptive a depiction of married life, as this deceptively simple and often surprisingly funny documentary which chronicles the edit sessions of the world’s most renowned directorial couple. I’d like to claim to be the first person to make this clever connection, but Ryland Walker Knight has already pointed it out in his thorough write-up of the film:

This is a film about film, of course, but it understands film as a conversation—about searching, about understanding—as an opportunity for philosophy, we might say—and how all these elements build a working picture of marriage, too. It’s Costa’s version of the romantic comedy. And it works.

Ryland would probably know better than I would, since he’s all up on Stanley Cavell. It’s not that the film is structured as a Cavellian comedy of remarriage. Even better, it may be the first film structured around the rhythms of film editing sessions, both on micro and macro levels: the contentious back-and forth debates from shot to shot, leading to breaks tuned either to relief at the completion of the scene or frustration at a momentary impasse, then reconvening to the editing deck for more cuts and conversations among illuminated images in the swallowing darkness. Love and film as endless conversations (which brings to mind Before Sunset, another favorite I plan to revisit).

At the risk of inviting embarrassment, I dare say that following the rhythms of this film invites comparison between editing and multiple rounds of love-making: two people in the dark, working out their technique, giving and taking, breaking off and starting again.  This observation is less embarrassing than some I made upon my initial viewing of the film. I can’t believe I didn’t give this film its full due back then; it probably had something to do with my general ambivalence towards the films of Straub-Huillet, only one of which, The Chronicle of Magdalena Bach, I truly love. I couldn’t begin to comprehend their most famous work, Not Reconciled, were it not for the video I made with Richard Brody, aka the badass of neo-realist theory. He also has a lucid brief review on Costa’s film.

When I first watched this film, I had problems with Straub’s long-winded, far-ranging monologues on film theory, especially as the mostly silent Huillet was slaving away at the Steenbeck. This certainly does not follow the 30s screwball model for dialogue that equipoises male and female voices and verbal wit. But, again, old models may need to be set aside to appreciate what’s special about this dynamic. Huillet’s power lies in her general silence, which makes the moments that she does speak amount to explosions of forceful necessity. (Particularly memorable is the second round of editing, when Huillet lashes out at Straub: “After all this time we’ve been editing films together, how come you still don’t have the discipline? An acrobat relying on you to jump would fall on his face at every attempt!” (I also love how Huillet calls her husband out by his last name, as if they were together on a sports team or military unit.)

Straub’s talk-talk-talking is one half of the equation, the other being Huillet’s rigorous embodiment of practice. It’s no surprise that Straub makes the assertion in the clip embedded above, that “First there is the idea, then there is form,” since he is stuffed with ideas. But it’s Huillet who takes these ideas (as well as her own) and applies them to every cut with her own hands. And as tempting as it is to separate the two (and by this I mean both the two concepts and the two practicioners), they are inextricably linked. Regardless of which comes first, ideas and forms need each other. And in over 40 years of working together Straub and Huillet developed such a unique approach to fusing ideas with forms that I have to wonder how much of it is exclusively understood between just the two of them. The film subtly brings up this feeling of isolation wrought by a fierce commitment to one’s artistic ideals: we see them present their films to an audience of roughly a dozen people scattered in a sea of empty chairs. They are seen in two shots, the only two shots that show people other than Straub and Huillet.  Their art is a solitary world, and, in Costa’s film, one that dwells mostly in darkness, but forcefully asserting itself into the void with Straub’s philosophical pronouncements and Huillet’s decisive cutting. The rigor and conviction they demonstrate is what I find extremely humbling as I consider my own practicies and principals as an editor, filmmaker, even a critic.

To hear Straub talk about it, with fierce eloquence, to the handful of people in front of him at a screening, is genuinely moving:

I’ve survived in a world in which the life of the artist in the open air was somewhat difficult, especially when you wanted to do what Cocteau described as: “Nourish that for which you are criticized, it’s your real self.” We see ourselves as privileged all the same. Because in a world in which 90% of the people have a job they’re not interested in, we’ve been able to do a job we’re interested in, and to do it the way we wanted to, and not the way others wanted us to do it, thus changing it.

Huillet, in possibly her longest monologue in the film, makes the same point with even more anecdotal eloquence, in accounting for why they made the film whose editing sessions Costa is documenting:

Sicilia!, it was love at first sight and we wanted to do it. Because in ’72 when we were looking for locations for Moses and Aron, which we shot in ’74, we travelled 30,000 km at a snail’s pace. And during the search, one day, we were on a bridge and we said to each other: “What a strange smell, not unpleasant but very strong. What is it?” And so we had a look around and saw hundreds of kilos of oranges lying in the riverbed below. That stuck in our minds, and when we read the beginning of Conversazione in Sicilia, it came back to us as an extremely strong memory… It was also worth it for the oranges!

Then there’s the story of how they met, which makes for the single warmest moment in the film, a dialogue truly worthy of a romantic comedy:

JMS: When we met in 1954, I was attending the Lycee Voltaire, but only for eight days.
DH: Three weeks.
JMS: Was I? Well, three weeks. Then I left…
DH: You didn’t. You were told it would be better to leave…
JMS: I was kicked out. I was even told why. I knew too much about Hitchcock and that disturbed the class. I was watching her from a distance. We weren’t sitting that close to each other. I didn’t know her. I was just watching her. And every time she uttered something, the others would ask me – why me? – what she’d said. I had to translate. It was taken for granted that I understood.
DH: And did you understand?
JMS: Ah! That’s a mystery! One will never know. They must have noticed that I had fallen madly in love at first sight, and so they thought: he must understand what she says.

Another thing that struck me watching the film this time around, that made it all the more personally poignant, is how much Straub and Huillet remind me of my grandparents, at least how they used to be: my grandfather’s love for talking and telling stories, while my grandmother would interject some clarifications or annotations, call and response style, while busily doing housework, peeling vegetables or cooking dinner at the stove, her own version of Huillet’s Steenbeck. I last visited them in January, when I took this photo.

That’s my younger uncle in the middle, and on the right my grandfather, who turns 90 this July. He spends his entire day in that chair by the front door as he has for the last 15 years – if you dimmed the lights his stoic pose would fit perfectly in a Pedro Costa movie. My grandmother on the left, setting dishes at the table, one of the few things she can do these days.  I was shocked to find my grandmother already in a mild stage of Alzheimer’s, a development that no-one in my family had informed me of. Unable to remember how to cook, or do any of the household activities, she paces around the room in the same workaholic housewife state as she has for decades, only now she forgets what she was pacing for. But even though my grandmother no longer recognizes me or remembers my name, she can still interject her own details to my grandfather’s stories; those behaviors are hard-wired after so many decades of telling the same stories.

My grandfather now does the cooking and cleaning for my grandmother; I wonder if Straub now does his own editing since Huillet passed away from cancer three years ago. After first watching Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? I was amazed to think that Straub is continuing to make films on his own – looking at this film you would wonder if it were possible. Maybe Straub was right after all: it starts with having the idea, and with that the form more or less takes care of itself.

It’s not a stretch to call Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? the most illuminating film on editing I’ve ever seen. I admit I haven’t seen many other such films; I’m sure Murch would be especially valuable. But I doubt that there are other films that really give you a sense of what it’s like to be editing a film, putting you through the full duration of the editing process, how it’s a mix of grueling tedium peppered with brilliant revelations, and when it’s really good, you get to understand your own thought process, deeply and intimately, especially in relation to your editing partner. It is very much like a love relationship, full of conversations, effusive proclamations, all out arguments and conciliatory compromises. And in the end, there may be as much or as little to show for it other than that you’ve been through something. In this regard, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? is one of the great love movies of our time.

961 (103). The Getaway (1972, Sam Peckinpah)

screened Friday March 27 2009 on Warner DVD

TSPDT rank #865  IMDb Wiki

Even the likes of Pauline Kael turn their noses at Sam Peckinpah’s most commercially successful feature as a formulaic genre exercise done mostly for the paycheck. But Peckinpah’s creative investment is apparent from the opening sequence, a dense montage that weaves multiple layers of time to establish a cold, mechanistic world in which ex-con Steve McQueen and wife Ali McGraw (who, with his consent, sleeps with a prison warden to ensure his release) rediscover each other with tension and tenderness. The overt mechanical elements of this opening, such as the numbing, clacking sounds of prison doors and work equipment, might be Peckinpah’s way of acknowledging the trappings of heist film formula with which he must contend.  The film is far from resembling the satire on the genre he had planned, but it expresses his candid, problematically misogynist views on sexual relationships and loyalty perhaps more complexly than any of his features, though as usual the depth lies more on the male side of the ledger.

This time Peckinpah’s Man, that molotov cocktail of helplessness and violence grubbing for salvation, is imbued with a cold professionalism unparalleled in his filmography thanks to McQueen’s tightly coiled appearance of masculine assurance: unflinching eyes incessantly assessing everything around him; a body that betrays nary a twitch of unnecessary movement. He’s among the least sentimental of Peckinpah’s heroes, but this should not be confused with a lack of pathos; McQueen’s character finds redemption in a job well executed, and the upholding of a moral code throughout – involving repeated beatings of McGraw whenever she messes up. Peckinpah validates McQueen’s behaviors by contrasting him with Al Lettieri, a heist accomplice who betrays McQueen, then kidnaps a doctor who saves his life and seduces the doctor’s voluptuous, dim-witted wife (Sally Struthers), enacting a comic and nightmarish opposite of McQueen and McGraw’s Ideal Man and Woman. While I don’t have that much use for Peckinpah’s worldview, and consider his prominence largely a sign of pervasive misogyny in Hollywood culture (I’ll reconsider my position the day that Hollywood regularly produces eloquently man-hating movies by female directors), I have to admit that few directors are as good at dramatizing their pathologies as Peckinpah.



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Best of the Decade Derby: What’s the Best Documentary of the Decade? (Two Case Studies)

I rewatched Platform last weekend as the first of two Jia Zhangke films I consider truly worthy of “best of the decade” status – the other is his much overlooked and underrated documentary Useless. Over his prolific output this decade (six features), Jia has made some great cinema – at least one other film, Still Life, can be considered a masterpiece, and 24 City keeps deepening in its layers of meaning – aesthetic, cultural and historical – the more I think about it. But Platform and Useless are really the stand-outs in my book. I entered my re-viewings wondering if Useless was possibly better than Platform, but that possibility was quickly dispeled for me moments into my reviewing of Platform. Apart from being a monumental achievement, the film simply has too much personal significance for me to deny its inevitable place on my top ten list.

But that doesn’t take anything away from Useless, which, after re-watching it this past week, I consider hands down one of the great documentaries of the decade.  I re-read my review from 2007 (never mind that 3 1/2 star rating, it should be at least four), which clearly reflected how much I was still processing this work in my mind. Seeing it again, the three parts work more fluidly as a whole, as if in dialogue with each other, both thematically and visually. Visual matches like the dirt on Ma Ke’s haute couture (a desire to return to a natural, organic relationship between people and products) and the coal dust that blackens miners’ bodies.  Or the mind-numbing shifts in the clothing factory, where workers pass away hours under repetitive movements without speaking a word to anyone vs. Paris fashion models getting undressed and dressed, idly waiting for their show to start, talking about the extreme physical demands of staying still for hours under the spotlight vs. underemployed small-town tailors idly chatting or passing time on a cellphone while waiting for a customer to show up. What links them together is Yu Lik Wai’s incredibly attentive camerwork, which moves fluidly through spaces in masterful tracking shots or sits in a corner taking in the geometric properties of a given workspace and how it influences the dynamic of social interactions within that space.

This is observational documentary filmmaking of the highest order, yet graced with dramatic touches that speak to the director’s inspired manipulations and fictional stagings in order to intensify the connections and bring this film into something more than straight verite (something he does to even more beguiling effect in 24 City). In light of Ma Ke’s fashion show with its bizarre sense of art-as-showmanship in the film’s middle stretch, Jia’s deliberate fictional elements seem to link themselves with Ma Ke’s attempt to dramatize sociological issues the presentation of her work.

Watching Useless again shifted the attention of the Best of the Decade project into the realm of documentary. I went through my screening logs of the past several years and jotted a list of significant documentaries to see if I could come up with a working list to delve further. One name gave me pause for reflection: Adam Curtis. If only because of David Bordwell’s excellent essay reconsidering the definition of “documentary film” published earlier this year on his blog. When I first watched Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares back in 2004, I found it to be one of the most provocative and stimulating documentaries investigating the reasons for the Iraq War and the war against Islamic terrorism; certainly more focused, reasoned and persuasive than the buckshot invective of Fahrenheit 9-11. The film does such a masterfully sophisticated job over its three hour running time of analyzing and intertwining the history and motives of neo-conservatism and radical fundamentalist Islam. By doing so it exposes the aspirations of both ideologies to control their respective spheres of influence by perpetuating a state of social paranoia that effectively terrorizes its citizenry.

Watch The Power of Nightmares on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

But towards the end I felt something kind of lacking as the film makes its closing arguments. It doesn’t entertain questions about what makes these ideologies so seductive and influential to John (or Muhummad) Q. Public, and more generally, what sort of ideology could take their place to provide for a safer, more peaceful world. Maybe such an ideology is implied in the film itself and Curtis’ erudite and discerning, perpetually skeptical and subtly snarky narration. The most it seems to offer is that we must always be vigilant and exercise our better judgment whenever ideologies try to captivate us with their utopian visions concealing nightmarish outcomes.

The sensation of watching Adam Curtis’ compulsively watchable films (I went through all ten hours of The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares and The Trap within a 24 hour period – once you get sucked in, it’s hard to look away) has been consistent for me through my recent viewings of each of his last three features: initial enthrallment and a sense of revelation, eventually giving way to a feeling of emptiness and even despair at the perpetual folly of human beings in trying to better their world. This was especially true in watching his most recent work, 2007’s The Trap, a revelatory examination of the impact of Game Theory on modern economic and social policy.  For the first hour or so, it stays focused on defining Game Theory, and how economists and social policy architects alike derived grand plans for improving society based on the belief that people’s inherent selfishness could become a driving force for increased innovation, freedom and prosperity for all.  In the second hour or so, its ambitions grow larger, opening into questions about the what defines individual freedom, how the indulgence of personal desire becomes a trap in itself, and the paradox of how institutions that tried to promote ideas of freedom ended up trapping people in systems that created even bigger disparities in wealth and social mobility than has been seen since World War II.  This film was made a full year before the economic meltdown that has put us where we are now, and today it looks downright prophetic.

Watch The Trap on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

But by the time the film enters hour three, its steady project of dismantling the authority of a misguided ideology, as with The Power of Nightmares, leaves us with a vacuum. After giving a provocative account of post-invasion Iraq as the ultimate folly of establishing free market society, positing Liberation Theory with its values of revolutionary sacrifice as a sort of antithesis to the individualist underpinnings of Game Theory, and putting in a final warning against overzealous attempts to impose and promote freedom around the world, he leaves us with a hopelessly vague exhortation to embrace “positive, progressive freedom” without delving significantly into what such a kind of freedom is.

I think my key limitation with Curtis is summed up by a quote from an interview near the very end of The Power of Nightmares: “A society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by a society that believes in anything.” Swap the first “society” with “filmmaker” and you get an idea of what Curtis’ films seem ultimately to be about, and why I feel somewhat empty at the end of watching these films despite having my eyes opened and my brain troubled by so many fascinating provocations about the misguided agendas that have shaped our world. Curtis’ films argue viciously against both ideologues who stand too much for narrow ideals and demagogues who stand for nothing, but the middle ground (which Curtis presumably occupies) remains frustratingly undefined. Maybe the point is to leave the audience with the necessary challenge of defining that middle ground for itself, rather than have the film presume to provide a convenient answer.

If that’s the case, I consider The Century of the Self, the most satisfying of the three Curtis efforts of this decade. It is revelatory, exhaustive and cohesive in its four-hour argument for how psychological practices were co-opted by big businesses and governments as a way for them to target and exploit people’s desires. But more than just fulfill its stated thesis, the film is more successful than Curtis’ other films at engaging with the more philosophical questions that emerge from his social critique, in this case, nothing less than what the meaning of having a fulfilling life is about, and what sort of relationship we are to have with our impulses and desires. It doesn’t engage that question directly, but its persistent critique of the many attempts of 20th century schools of psychology and self-help, from Freud to Wilhelm Reich to Werner Erhard, attest to the frustrations and follies that arise in human beings’ repeated attempts to liberate or govern themselves, asserting value systems that invariably expose their own limitations. In other words, it’s like watching the BBC documentary version of a Luis Bunuel film.  Indeed, watching The Century of the Self, and Curtis’ other monumentally ambitious works of this decade, I’m convinced that he is the Luis Bunuel of our time.

Watch The Century of the Self on Google Video – Part 1 embedded below:

This comparison may fit not just in terms of their worldview, but in Curtis’  awesome compilation of archival and original footage to create a brilliant montage that seems to take up multiple perspectives towards the image – sometimes it supports the point being made, sometimes it offers a snarky counterpoint, and sometimes it just seems to offer a stupefying depiction of humanity beyond description. Like video footage taken from a corporate market research video that illustrates different types of consumers: the interview subject labeled “societally conscious” is a bookstore owner so deep into the stereotype that he that we can’t tell if he’s an actor or not. It’s those fluorishes of bizarreness that give Curtis an edge beyond the ostensible polemic of his projects, because they illustrate the persistent weirdness of humanity to defy its attempts to define itself.

So we have Jia’s Useless, an exceptional observational documentary with intriguing elements of fiction, and the films of Adam Curtis, a master social documentary essayist. These are but two of the many forms of documentary that have thrived in this past decade.  The following are those that I consider the best of the decade that I’ve seen:

Capturing the Friedmans
The Century of the Self
The Gleaners and I
Grizzly Man
My Architect
Los Angeles Plays Itself
S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine
When the Levees Broke: A Tragedy in Four Acts
Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?

I’m sure there are many titles I have yet to catch up with – I still haven’t finished watching Wang Bing’s lauded magnum opus West of the Tracks. But please submit your favorite documentaries of this decade in the comments. I’ll be revisiting a select few over the course of the year, and fully expect at least one or two titles to make my list for best films of the decade.

960 (102). The Lusty Men (1952, Nicholas Ray)

Screened March 18 2009 on divx .avi in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #740 IMDb Wiki

Consciously or not, the characters in Nicholas Ray’s cinema live as if heaven is just one step ahead, and hell just one step behind. What these tragic heroes learn – often too late – is that both heaven and hell are moving faster than they are. But that tragic pursuit amongst dreams and demons, filled with aspiration and anxiety, is what gives his films their kinetic charge. It’s not even that his films are cinematically action-packed, though The Lusty Men, with its generous helpings of real rodeo footage, certainly packs a thrill. It’s that even in the quietest, most meditative scenes, there’s a restless waiting for what’s next that keeps the viewer on edge, anticipating the revelations of the next moment. In other words, Nicholas Ray is the first existential action filmmaker.

Robert Mitchum’s performance as an ex-rodeo champ, a stoic lump of washed-up man meat, attests to this aesthetic brilliantly. Seeming only to live for nothing more than whatever situation comes his way, his hulking, limping frame either ambles along or hangs upright in postures of cowboy confidence; his voice is even more rock steady. That leaves his eyes to play a virtuoso range of movements: glaring anger or downcast shame, lightning alarm or low-lidded arousal. His eyes are windows to the storm of unresolved feelings locked inside.

He’s complemented by a ranch couple, young but no less hard-nosed: Arthur Kennedy, an aspiring rodeo star whose teeth gleam with carnivorous ambition, and Susan Hayward, who turns a thankless wife-watching-from-the-sidelines role into a gravitational coil of skeptical worry. The three of them collectively map out a vast terrain of equivocal emotions, dubious dreams and miles of regrets. It’s a world of hurt from which even the young are unsheltered – for me the knockout blow comes in a flash cutaway that lasts just long enough for a teenage rodeo girl to silently mouth “I love you” to her dying idol. We hardly know anything about this girl, but her gesture both confirms and expands the universal heartbreak that drives Ray’s vision.


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Nicholas Ray: A Webliography

IMDb Wiki

Nicholas Ray’s MySpace Page

Quotes from the TSPDT profile page for Nicholas Ray:

“Few other directors had such a sense of the effect of locations and interiors on people’s lives, or the visual or emotional relationship between indoors and outdoors, upstairs and downstairs…There is not a director who films or frames interior shots with Ray’s dynamic, fraught grace and who thereby so explodes the rigid limits of “script” material. No one made CinemaScope so glorious a shape as Ray, because it seemed to set an extra challenge to his interior sensibility.” – David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

“A huge cult has grown around this American director in recent years, bigger than almost any film-maker, and certainly one of Ray’s uneven output, could warrant. His best films are clustered in his initial RKO Radio period – apart from Rebel Without a Cause, his only truly first-rate film outside that studio. Observers have professed to find various wonders in such later Ray films as Hot Blood, The True Story of Jesse James, Bitter Victory and others. I can only confess that their virtues escaped me at the time and, on a re-viewing, still do.” – David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)

“One of the finest directors of the ’50s, Nicholas Ray transcended the limitations of genre to create movies of a highly personal nature. Imbued with an intense, romantic pessimism and photographed with a rare feel for the emotional resonance of colour and space. Ray’s films are distinguished by a passionate identification with society’s outsiders, his sympathies possibly arising from his own troubled relationship with the film-making establishment.” – Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)

“Those who form their own moral laws, whatever the consequences, people the films of Nicholas Ray. His tendency to cut his images on character movement makes his work extremely fluid.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)

“In the theatre, words are eighty to eighty-five percent of the importance of what is happening to you for your comprehension. In film, words are about twenty percent. It’s a different figure, but it’s almost an opposite ratio. For the words are only a little bit of embroidery, a little bit of lacework.” – Nicholas Ray (Directing the Film, 1976)

“My affection for CinemaScope initially was my affection for the horizontal line as I learned it from having been apprenticed to an architect who was someone named Frank Lloyd Wright.” – Nicholas Ray (Directing the Film, 1976)

Nicholas Ray has been the cause celebre of the auteur theory for such a long time that his critics, pro and con, have lost all sense of proportion about his career. Nicholas Ray is not the greatest director who ever lived; nor is he a Hollywood hack. The Truth lies somewhere in between. It must be remembered that They Live by Night, The Lusty Men, Rebel Without a Cause, and Bigger Than Life are socially conscious films by any standards, and that Knock on Any Door is particularly bad social consciousness on the Kramer-Cayatte level. His form is not that impeccable, and his content has generally involved considerable social issues. Ray has always displayed an exciting visual style. For example, if one compares They Live by Night with Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle – and these two films are strikingly similar in mood, theme and plot – one will notice that where Ray tends to cut between physical movements, Huston tends to cut between static compositions. Ray’s style tends to be more kinetic, Huston’s more plastic, the difference between dance and sculpture. If Ray’s nervous direction has no thematic meaning, he would be a minor director indeed. Fortunately, Ray does have a theme, and a very important one; namely, that every relationship establishes its own moral code and that there is no such thing as abstract morality. This much was made clear in Rebel Without a Cause when James Dean and his fellow adolescents leaned back in their seats at the planetarium and passively accepted the proposition that the universe was drifting without any frame of reference. Even thought Ray’s career has been plagued by many frustrations, none of his films lack some burst of inspiration. Johnny Guitar was his most bizarre film, and probably his most personal. Certainly, we can sympathize with Everson and Fenin trying to relate this “Western” to the William S. Hart tradition, and finding Ray lacking; but this is the fallacy of writing about genres. Johnny Guitar has invented its own genre. Philip Yordan set out to attack McCarthyism, but Ray was too delirious to pay any heed as Freuidan feminism prevailed over Marxist masochism, and Pirandello transcended polemics.

Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema. Pages 107-108

“The cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Godard’s magisterial statement has come in for a good deal of ridicule, not by any means entirely undeserved. Yet it contains a core of truth, especially if taken in reverse. Nicholas Ray is cinema in the sense that his films work entirely (and perhaps only) as movies, arrangements of space and movement charged with dramatic tension. Few directors demonstrate more clearly that a film is something beyond the sum of its parts. Consider only the more literary components—dialogue, plot, characterisation—and a film like Party Girl is patently trash. But on the screen the visual turbulence of Ray’s shooting style, the fractured intensity of his editing, fuse the elements into a valid emotional whole. The flaws are still apparent, but have become incidental.

Nor is Ray’s cinematic style in any way extraneous, imposed upon his subjects. The nervous tension within the frame also informs his characters, vulnerable violent outsiders at odds with society and with themselves. The typical Ray hero is a loner, at once contemptuous of the complacent normal world and tormented with a longing to be reaccepted into it—to become (like Bowie and Keechie, the young lovers ofThey Live by Night) “like real people.” James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, Robert Mitchum in The Lusty Men, all start by rejecting the constraints of the nuclear family, only to find themselves impelled to recreate it in substitute form, as though trying to fill an unacknowledged void. In one achingly elegiac scene in The Lusty Men, Mitchum prowls around the tumbledown shack that was his childhood home, “looking for something I thought I’d lost.”

Ray’s grounding in architecture (he studied at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright) reveals itself in an exceptionally acute sense of space, often deployed as an extension of states of mind. In his films the geometry of locations, and especially interiors, serves as a psychological terrain. Conflict can be played out, and tension expressed, in terms of spatial areas (upstairs and downstairs, for example, or the courtyards and levels of an apartment complex) pitted against each other. Ray also credited Wright with instilling in him “a love of the horizontal line”—and hence of the CinemaScope screen, for which he felt intuitive affinity. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who found it awkward and inhibiting, Ray avidly explores the format’s potential, sometimes combining it with lateral tracking shots to convey lyrical movement, at other times angling his camera to create urgent diagonals, suggesting characters straining against the constrictions of the frame.

Equally idiosyncratic is Ray’s expressionist use of colour, taken at times to heights of delirium that risk toppling into the ridiculous. In Johnny Guitar, perhaps the most flamboyantly baroque Western ever made, Joan Crawford is colour-coded red, white, or black according to which aspect of her character—whore, victim, or gunslinger—is uppermost in a given scene. Similarly, the contrast in Bigger than Lifebetween the hero’s respectable job as a schoolteacher and his déclassé moonlighting for a taxi firm is signalled by an abrupt cut from the muted grey-browns of the school to a screenful of gaudy yellow cabs that hit the audience’s eyes with a visual slap.

“I’m a stranger here myself.” Ray often quoted Sterling Hayden’s line from Johnny Guitar as his personal motto. His career, as he himself was well aware, disconcertingly mirrored the fate of his own riven, alienated heroes. Unappreciated (or so he felt) in America, and increasingly irked by the constraints of the studio system, he nonetheless produced all his best work there. In Europe, where he was hailed as one of the world’s greatest directors, his craft deserted him: after two ill-starred epics, the last sixteen years of his life trickled away in a mess of incoherent footage and abortive projects. Victim of his own legend, Ray finally took self-identification with his protagonists to its ultimate tortured conclusion—collaborating, in Lightning over Water, in the filming of his own disintegration and death.

Philip Kemp, Film

That Nicholas Ray’s professional name was derived from an inversion of his first two surnames sounds fitting for a filmmaking career that proceeded backwards by conventional standards, beginning in relative conformity and ending in rebellious independence. Like Jacques Tati and Samuel Fuller, Ray did a lot of living before he ever got around to filmmaking-pursuing a life largely rooted in the radical dreams and activities of the Depression years, which we mainly know about thanks to Bernard Eisenschitz’s extensive and invaluable biography, one of the best-researched factual accounts we have of any director’s career. In a sense, the celebrations of alternative lifestyles (such as those of rodeo people in The Lusty Men [1952], Gypsies in Hot Blood [1956], and Eskimos in The Savage Innocents [1960]), and passionately symmetrical relationships (such as the evenly balanced romantic couples of In a Lonely Place [1950] and Johnny Guitar [1954] and the evenly matched male antagonists of Wind Across the Everglades [1958] and Bitter Victory [1957]), and a sense of tragedy underlining their loss or betrayal, can largely be traced back to his political and populist roots. A creature of both the ’30s and ’60s, he was ahead of his time during both decades.

In a Lonely Place
In a Lonely Place

Yet the signs of Ray’s personal stamp weren’t merely stylistic but also occult gestures of a particular kind: alluding to the direct references to Ray’s personality, his first Hollywood apartment, and his recently busted-up marriage to Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place, American film critic Dave Kehr once noted in a capsule review that “The film’s subject is the attractiveness of instability, and Ray’s self-examination is both narcissistic and sharply critical, in fascinating combination.” (1) (The same sort of deadly romantic mix, which led some French enthusiasts to link him to Rimbaud, was noted more critically by Jean-Marie Straub when he once observed that Ray, in contrast to the relative clarity and lack of sentimentality in a Hawks or a Buñuel, “is always fascinated by violence, and so, at a certain moment, he slips on the side of the police.”) (2)Furthermore, a passionate desire to place his mark on the work can even be felt in Ray appearing in the final shot of Rebel Without a Cause, walking towards the planetarium-not the sort of detail needed by the plot, the theme, or the mise en scène, but something closer to a naked paw print perhaps, a gesture of possessiveness and exhibitionism that paradoxically thrives on an innate sense of privacy.

Yet the strength of his first dozen or so years as a filmmaker remains unshakable: 18 features, most of which could plausibly be called masterpieces of one kind or another. (At the very least, They Live By NightIn a Lonely PlaceOn Dangerous GroundThe Lusty MenJohnny GuitarRebel Without a CauseBigger Than LifeBitter VictoryWind Across the EvergladesParty Girl, and The Savage Innocents-and potent stretches in most of the others, including even King of Kings [1961].) Robin Wood once noted that no one ever gives a bad performance in a Ray film, not even Anthony Quinn, and on balance the statement is far less hyperbolic than it sounds. It’s hard to think of another Western with as many vivid and singular characters as Johnny Guitar, or two wooden actors used more creatively and movingly than Robert Taylor and Cyd Charisse in Party Girl. Maybe that’s because even within a vision as fundamentally bleak and futile as Ray’s, a clear view of paradise is never entirely out of mind or even definitively out of reach. This is the utopian promise of the ’30s and the ’60s that his work keeps alive, and it remains a precious legacy.

Jonathan RosenbaumSenses of Cinema

There was a time when film enthusiasts fought fiercely over Nicholas Ray and what he stood for. He was a test case, and rose to the challenge in his special way. He had an intensely brooding but romantic view of himself and of his inevitable “outsider” status. He was as tall and handsome as a western hero, and spoke slowly – so slowly that you could believe he had forgotten you and the conversation – as if to indicate the desperate burden of sincerity or determining what he believed. Women and men were drawn to him by the same gravitational pull; it had something to do with the demons that never left him.

For years, he was idolised by the young French writers who would become the directors of the New Wave. François Truffaut once noted: “There are no Ray films that do not have a scene at the close of day; he is the poet of nightfall, and of course everything is permitted in Hollywood except poetry.” Contrasting Ray and Howard Hawks, he added: “But anyone who rejects either should never go to the movies again, never see any more films. Such people will never recognise inspiration, poetic intuition, or a framed picture, a shot, an idea, a good film, or even cinema itself.” Jean-Luc Godard offered another sweeping panegyric: “There was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray.”

He was not a rapid developer, unlike Welles, say, who was four years his junior and also from Wisconsin. Ray met a young writer, Jean Evans. They lived together for several years and married in 1936. But Ray was not faithful and not simply heterosexual. Houseman had discerned how confused he could be: “Reared in Wisconsin in a household dominated by women, he was a potential homosexual with a deep, passionate and constant need for female love in his life. This made him attractive to women, for whom the chance to save him from his own self-destructive habits proved an irresistible attraction of which Nick took full advantage and for which he rarely forgave them. He left a trail of damaged lives behind him – not as a seducer, but as a husband, lover and father.”

There is a biography of Ray, by Bernard Eisenschitz (published in Britain by Faber). It is useful and devoted, if far from complete. Like many admirers who tended Ray in the hope that he might recover and work again, Eisenschitz glosses over the bisexuality and quite ruinous personal indulgences. Ray had the looks, talent and friends that might have made a great career. There was a great film-maker inside him, yet he relentlessly hacked away at his support and supporters. Was it self-loathing, a warped self-pity? Was it a defence, or was it that deeply fatalistic vision that is expressed by Richard Burton in Bitter Victory: “I kill the living and save the dead”?

David Thomson, The Guardian

Poor Nick Ray. No artist should be asked to weather such unmitigated awe. The French were right to honor the convulsive strangeness of “Johnny Guitar” (1954), the tale of a saloonkeeper (Joan Crawford) fighting, with the aid of an old flame (Sterling Hayden), to survive a lynch mob. Only foreign eyes, perhaps, could widen with suitable amazement, and without a tremolo of sniggers, at the movie’s lunging gestures and superheated tones. When our heroine is advised to change out of her milk-white dress to evade pursuit, she sensibly slips into a shirt of blinding red, suggesting that she has also found time to don a radioactive bra. What Godard and his colleagues could not register—and what, as moralists of the pure image, they would dismiss as irrelevant—were the qualities that an American audience would bring to bear. Good sense, the narrative urge, a limited patience for the warped and the whimsical: all would be tested by a film like “Johnny Guitar,” which seems about as clued in to actual cowboys as Puccini’s “The Girl of the Golden West.” The movie is majestic, but, like the face of Joan Crawford, which could have been chipped from the buttress of a Gothic cathedral, it is howlingly close to mad.

Ray’s movies, which deal with everything from dancing Gypsies to a middle-class cortisone addict, teem with solitude; one staggers out of them with the dizzying suspicion that men and women are like planets and moons, each following a predestined curve, repeatedly tugged or slung away by the gravity of other bodies.

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

All our critics distinguish, more or less explicitly, between commercial and personal cinema. The distinction is occasionally valid, often silly, and always dangerous. It is quite legitimate, for example, to point out that Nicholas Ray has frequently been obliged to work from a scenario with which he was not satisfied: Run for Cover, Hot Blood, Party Girl; that many of his films have been mutilated after completion: The James Brothers, Bitter Victory, Wind across the Everglades, The Savage Innocents, King of Kings; and that the stories of The Lusty Men, Johnny Guitar and Bigger than Life might look uninviting on paper. But film is not paper, and never can be except in the wishful imagination of a critic who regards his eyes only as the things that he reads with. The distinction between personal and commercial cinema has become a weapon for use against films which do not impress by the obvious seriousness of their stories and dialogue. The director’s contribution is as irrelevant to the critical success of They Live by Night and Rebel without a Cause as it is to the critical neglect of Johnny Guitar, Bigger than Life, or Wind across the Everglades. It is nonsense to say that in Party Girl Ray’s talent is “squandered on a perfect idiocy” (Louis Marcorelles in, of all places, “Cahiers du Cinema”). The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject. Ray has himself criticised the literary preoccupations of some screenwriters. “‘It was all in the script’ a disillusioned writer will tell you. But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?” The disillusioned writer and the insensitive critic are alike in discounting the very things for which one goes to the cinema: the extraordinary resonances which a director can provoke by his use of actors, decor, movement, colour, shape, of all that can be seen and heard.

Primarily, one sees and hears actors. Ray’s films contain a number of performances which can be called great because they give complete characterisations: Bogart (In a Lonely Place), Mitchum (The Lusty Men), Dean, Wood, Backus (Rebel without a Cause), Burton (Bitter Victory) and Christopher Plummer (Wind across the Everglades) spring immediately to mind. But the director’s control is proved not so much by the perfection of individual performances as by the consistency with which Ray’s actors embody his vision. This consistency is the result – it’s an ancient paradox – of the director’s search for the particular truth of each particular situation. Johnny Guitar’s isolation is depicted in such specific terms that we appreciate, without directorial emphasis, the wider significance of his remark “I’ve a great respect for a gun, and, besides, I’m a stranger here myself.” In They Live by Night Cathy O’Donnell is unable to put her watch right because “there’s no clock here to set it by.” The remark has a specific, complex, dramatic context. We are aware, as the character is not, of its more general relevance for a girl who was “never properly introduced to the world we live in.”

Again, while insisting on Ray’s genius in conveying the general through the particular, the abstract through the concrete, I have no wish to claim that it is uniquely his gift. It is simply the ability which distinguishes the true filmmaker from the pseud-director who provides “photographs of people talking.” And it is an ability which one feels not just in Ray’s direction of his actors but in his use of the entire vocabulary of film.

V. F. Perkins, “The Cinema of Nicholas Ray.” Published in Movies and Methods. Edited by Bill Nichols. Published by University of California Press, 1976. Page 351-352.

Video Essay for 955 (97) Hitler: A Film from Germany featuring commentary by Susan Sontag

Visit the original entry for the film

It’s been 30 years since Susan Sontag published her essay that instantly became the definitive analysis of one of her all-time favorite films. I’ve taken choice excerpts from her essay, as found in A Susan Sontag Reader (published by Farrar/Strauss/Giroux) to produce the following video.

Thanks to Margaret Donabedian for giving voice to Sontag’s words, and Cindi Rowell for her invaluable assistance in editing the video.

Best of the Decade Derby: Live-blogging Platform (2000, Jia Zhang-ke)

brought to you by Glenlivet 12 year-old single malt Scotch. When you need some liquid courage for revisiting a personal landmark movie, go Glenlivet.


FIRST SCRENING: Sunday, October 8, 2000, 1:30PM – 38th New York Film Festival, Alice Tully Hall

It was a month since I moved to New York to live with Julie [my future ex-wife], and a year since we completed two years of teaching in rural China.   The New York Film Festival was a point of entry into the city’s formidable film culture (it’s since become my annual ritual). I showed up too late to get tickets for marquee attractions like In The Mood for Love or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon – but there were plenty of tickets left for the only feature from mainland China.

In that screening my Chinese past and cinephilc present were united, and two year old memories that were already boxed up in a dark mental basement were retrieved, given pride of place, monumentalized.   The way Jia Zhangke filmed those kids stranded in the boondocks, taking delight in the changes around them before the world robbed them of their naïvete, the way he acknowledged pop culture’s influence on their dreams and identities, was the same way my students in China saw themselves.   But he also scrutinized youth culture’s seductive qualities and lamented its inability to contend with the demands of the adult world — and that’s what really spoke to me, how I had left China, rootless and destitute. Now I knew what Bunuel felt when he smashed the projector at a screening of Rose Hobart and accused Joseph Cornell of stealing his unfilmed visions.

Who was this Jia Zhangke?   I had never heard of him and had no critical or popular reputation as a reference point – no Ebert, Kael or Rosenbaum review upon which to rest my certainty, only lukewarm, somewhat uncomprehending praise bestowed by the New York Times. Had I ever felt so bereft and tentative in formulating my own response? Even if a critic I respected had offered a review that I agreed with, what were the chances they would speak from the same experience that was vital to what I felt this film was really about?   There had been films in the past that I felt belonged to me in some way or another, but this was the first time that I felt a film had been entrusted to me – that I had something no one else had: a duty to make the film understood.

The prospect of fulfilling this duty was grim from the onset, because the one person who I had shared China with most found Platform to be an utter bore.   Tedious, self-indulgent, pointless, Julie said; the Chinese are portrayed so inexpressively, with none of the convivial close-ups of Chinese like in To Live , her favorite Chinese movie.   How could she not see what I saw?   Did it not reflect or validate a sliver of her two years in China?   There was no time to dwell on this rift — I had already decided that it was the greatest Chinese film I had ever seen, a feeling reinforced when I finally saw that kung-fu blockbuster breakthrough by my college hero, Ang Lee.   Such a watershed in bringing Chinese cinema to the global stage, and yet such a dandified work of neo-Confucian anti-feminist spite, with no sense of specificity to a space, place or community – it was everyone’s Chinese movie, and no one’s.   Platform was mine, and that meant everything.


watching the shitty Artificial Eye 4×3 non-widescreen piss-poor transfer DVD. I can’t find my New Yorker DVD copy (which sucks because it’s the first DVD that I was ever cited on… a long story, which I’ve decided out of discretion not to include in this post, despite its immense significance to my life… I’ll just say two things: that at one point in my life Jia Zhang-ke played a sort of matchmaker in absentia for me.  Imagine what it’s like to meet someone you’re attracted to and have them present you a printout of an essay you wrote three years ago with multiple passages highlighted and bolded.  I finally got to tell this to Jia last October, and he was flattered. Second, that I saw James Gray’s outstanding film TWO LOVERS today and had a lengthy discussion afterwards about how youthful, go-for-broke romanticism, practically a symptom of arrested development, gives way to the sober pragmatism of adult relationships, achieved through a kind of spiritual death of youth.  It’s worth bringing this up because PLATFORM itself chronicles this process in ways that few films this decade have – ALMOST FAMOUS tries to be about this but doesn’t let you feel the full impact of innocence lost – really Philip Garrel may be the only director who can compete.)

0:00:02 – I didn’t realize the opening sound was a squeal of what sounds like a speaker feedback – rhymes with the final sound of the kettle whistle at the end.

0:00:25 – coarse talk about illicit lovers, the kind you would never hear in a state-sanctioned Chinese film – Jia making a statement that this movie is going to tell you what you don’t hear about elsewhere.

0:01 – “Platform opens with a performance of “The Train to Shaoshan” by the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group. In terms of artistic quality, imagine a children’s propaganda musical written by Dick Cheney and performed by Texas A&M’s Young Republicans for the West Bumblefuck elementary school. What could only come to fruition here in a deranged SNL skit was an everyday reality under Mao’s China. Making the performance even more surreal to these western eyes, the Peasant Culture Group’s audience wasn’t school children – it was a large gathering of adult male farmers…

As Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms transformed the Chinese economy, the Peasant Culture Groups underwent privatization. But instead of finding artistic liberation, they mutated from celebrated propaganda machines into vapid pop-culture reflections: traveling sideshows of jiggling girls and monstrous cover bands. A pivotal moment for art was wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies.” – Matt Parker

from an email to Matt:

The group has it’s biggest audience in the beginning, presumably due to a village mandate that everyone attend typical of rural Chinese communist practices. And that the audience is somewhat aware of the kitschy inadequacy ofnthe simulated chair train, but they seem to enjoy themselves all the same, in contrast to the fistfight that erupts at one rock concert near the end. And little details like the song of the Tibetan girl (programmed as a kind of ethnic propaganda reassuring everyone that the gov is doing right by those people). Another favorite moment is when they’re introduced to that song by Zhang Di (“I,Zhang Di, am often asked/ if the girls of Singapore are better than Taiwanese girls”) Sure it’s vapid pop like you say but it’s the first encounter these kids have with a singular voice of individualism, the antithesis of the vapid groupthink and group culture you also described. I’m glad that Jia’s film is more descriptive than prescriptive; as such it bears vivid witness to a crucial period of a world superpower in the making like no other film has.

0:03 – WTF! This version is missing the solo by the “Tibetan” girl. I wish Jia would release the 3 hour “directors” version of the print I first saw at NYFF – I still think it’s better than the 2 1/2 hour version that hit theaters.

0:06 – Holy shit, the train sounds at the beginning – for a second feature Jia has his motifs laid out masterfully.  And the wild, collaborative teenage energy of it – this was what was missing from THE WORLD (unless you want to see that film as a depiction of a fascist state-as-theme park in which case the lack of youthful anarchy has a purpose, I suppose…)

0:09 – I’ve seen about 200 Chinese features in the time since I first watched PLATFORM. I’ve long attributed the evolution of Chinese indie cinema into the long-take slow-crawl conventions that prevail today to this film. But watching it so far I’m amazed by the goofy accessibility of this movie (at least relative to much of what has followed it) – the peasant performance, the hollering in the bus, the sight gags with the bell-bottoms, this is Judd Apatow compared to the opaqueness of its successors.

0:14 – Ah yes, the scene that made me seek out Raj Kapoor and AWAARA, another all-time favorite. I have this film to thank for that.

0:15 – Jia’s rule of thumb with this film seems to be “have more than one thing going on in a scene – preferrably one expository thing and one piece of incidental cultural context, and lay it on like dressing on salad” – case in point, Zhao Tao’s character Yin Ruijuan comes out to meet her father who scolds her for hanging out with the wrong crowd – then he interrupts himself to tell a group of delinquent kids to turn and face the wall – we learn that he’s a police officer and we get to see how authority figures treat juveniles.

0:17 – I fucking love this city wall. City walls have existed in China for centuries, occasionally rebuilt, to defend against invading Mongols and such. Who would have thought it’d be the preferred site for romantic trysts and heart-to-hearts. Interesting how you can hear other people talking from some undefined distance, suggesting that privacy is never an absolute state.

0:22 – “Fengliu, fengliu, shenme shi fengliu?’ I wish they had this poem at karaoke bars. Expositionally significant because the concept of romance was publicly taboo for decades – and it’s to Jia’s credit that he doesn’t make a big deal out of that (taking a cue from late 80s Hou). Maybe it’s to Western audience’s loss, but it bolsters the integrity of the film.

0:30 – I remember discussing Platform with novelist-filmmaker Zhu Wen (Seafood, South of the Clouds), who criticized the film for trying to be too epic, for trying to make a grand definitive statement about an entire generation. May have amounted to professional jealousy. Looking at this film, I have no complaints with Jia trying to say as much as he could about his generation’s experiences of life and its slow evolution over the course of a decade. Our sense of where this country and its people has come from is the richer for it.  What’s especially great about it is how he’s able to lay in a lot of these details incidentally, as if they just happen to pass by the screen. For sharp contrast, see how Scorsese handles trying to convey historical information in GANGS OF NEW YORK.

0:43- ah yes the wall scene. The use of space here really struck me when I first watched it. I’m not sure if I’ve seen Jia use this technique since. To be honest I’m not sure if Jia has exhibited this degree of playfulness since his first two features, and it goes without saying that I wish he would…

0:47 – Bad boy pop officially lands in central China. To this day I still can’t find this song by Zhang Di about whether Taiwan girls are better than Singapore girls, or the “Gen-Gen-Genghis Khan” song. But this sequence sends a chill through my spine, because it’s depicting the dissemination of culture in a way that feels historically authentic while capturing the spirit of exhilaration, like what it was like for me to hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time, or the moment I finally got Guns ‘N’ Roses (October 1990 Future Business Leaders of America conference in Fresno, watching a roomful of suburban white boys slamdancing to “It’s So Easy”).  This is not an easy thing to pull off, as wanna-be time capsule movies like THE WACKNESS will testify.

0:54 – more playing with the space of the walls – exiting the stage, a quasi-homage to Lim Giong jumping out of the frame in GOODBYE SOUTH, GOODBYE.

1:03 – to my knowledge this is the first depiction of abortion in any movie from China, the country where more abortions take place than anywhere in the world. Followed by subversive use of “official” radio broadcast, one of Jia’s stylistic hallmarks, to be copied by many Chinese filmmakers (though it was Hou Hsiao Hsien’s CITY OF SADNESS that first made prominent use of this device in a Chinese cinematic idiom)

1:17 – we’re well into the Fengyang youth group’s first tour of the countryside, a trip that takes on multiple meanings – an examination of emerging class differences between city and country Chinese, visible even in the nascent stages of post-Mao Open Door Era China; an ’80s pop version of the Cultural Revolution compulsory “sent down” assignments that urban youths had to endure; the limited possibilities to live as free and easy artists/know-it-all hipsters in a Communist society.

1:25 – there’s a scene from the original cut that’s missing from this mining sequence – a really dark and sinister moment when the troupe manager tries to collect from the drunk mine bosses and the bosses retort by threatening to have the miners rape the women of the troupe. I think I’d have to say that the film may be better without it – we’ll eventually learn of the troupe’s hardships in less melodramatic ways.

Another thing that’s missing – a road interlude where they’re listening to a Chinese adaptation of Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You” from the movie STREETS OF FIRE, translated in Chinese as “I Miss My Mom.” (I may be one of less than a dozen people in the world who saw that scene and got the reference…)

1:30 – ah yes, the title song sequence. Brings back a memory of my first week in China as an English teacher and going to a tacky nightclub where this 30-something singer performed a one man musical revue with the help of several skimpily clad model-dancers. One of his numbers was “Platform” and I remember him singing this song with an eerie guttural rage (“My heart waits, waits, ENDLESSLY WAITING…”). Watching PLATFORM the first time I thought of this guy and the possibility that he could have been one of these kids, only grown up and still hacking away at his dream of bringing music and a little star power to the world. I wonder where he might be today…

1:42 – Zhong Ping disappears. I wish I had the guts to ask Jia or someone whatever happened to this actress – not only does her character disappear from the film, but the actress disappeared from movies. I wonder if the two disappearances were connected.

1:45 – For the record, this drunken bricklaying scene wasn’t in the original cut.

1:46 – I remember in the course of writing the Senses of Cinema essay feeling apprehensive that PLATFORM owed possibly too much to Theo Angelopoulos’ THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS to be considered a truly groundbreaking work. But now I see how this film has its own idiom, achieved more through the violence of history separated by cuts from scene to scene than lyrical long take camerawork.

1:47 –

Is it true that I am leaving you?
Is it true no more tears will fall
Is it true I have a one-way ticket?
Leaving on a road with no end?
Is it true I am leaving you?
Is it true no more tears will fall?
Is it true, as I said before
That lovers must be lonely?

Hands down the most poignant scene in the film. A young lady at her office on night duty, hearing a song and letting herself be carried into a dance she used to perform, surrounded by invisible memories of her old gang of comrades, her ex-boyfriend. The past resurrected, reanimated and put to burial all at once.

1:52 – Loveable Wang Hong-wei having his Billy Idol moment – I’m sure Billy Idol has had fruit and shoes thrown at him at some point. Things obviously not going well for the All Star Rock-and-Breakdance Electronic Band.

1:54 – A scene of startling, documentary-like directness, twin sisters talking about why they’ve joined the band, which feels as much 1999 – or 2009 – as 1980s. Girls leave their homes for more or less the same reasons then as now.

2:06 – Such a sad scene – the two girls dancing on a truck to “Girl Under a Streetlamp” along the roadside while the traffic drowns and crowds out their performance. Defiance and despair. They’ve adopted a cheesy 80s disco song as their chosen form of artistic expression, and they’re not even performing it terribly well, but the courage, grit and pathos of the scene is undeniable.

2:21 – This subplot about Cui Mingliang’s parents and his relationship with his absent father may feel a bit extraneous, but again, it’s one of those things that hits a nerve with me, given my own family history. It just seems to take a long time just to establish that the father has remarried, without offering additional information – narrative, historical, etc. It might have had more of a place in the longer cut. Speaking of which, from my essay for Senses of Cinema:

For what it’s worth, here I would like to describe the coda to the original version of the film, which has since been excised from the “distributor’s cut”. It begins with a long shot of a silhouetted figure standing in the midst of a vast and desolate landscape, firing a rifle towards the sun lingering on the horizon (whether it is rising or setting is not made clear, and it adds to the alluring mystery of the image). The camera pans away from the armed figure until it reveals the entire ensemble of the movie, dressed in their performance costumes, standing together and facing the sun, in such a way that resembles the idealized human profiles depicted on Chinese currency. These people, whose collective hopes have been dashed over the course of the film, are given one final chance to re-occupy a common space, bravely facing the sun that symbolizes the setting of an old age, or the dawning of a new, or both. This is one of the most beautifully lyrical and humanistic images I’ve witnessed in the recent history of cinema, and for some reason it’s not even in the final cut.

Guess there’s still work to be done…

959 (101). The Hart of London (1970, Jack Chambers)

screened Thursday March 11 2009 on DVD via fileshare in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #511  IMDb Wiki

While the link between experimental and horror filmmaking remains largely under-examined, there’s no question that some of the great works of experimental cinema could double as outstanding horror films: Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (which commits unspeakable acts on footage from the 80s horror flick The Entity), numerous titles by Stan Brakhage (i.e. The Art of Vision; The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes), even Michael Snow’s Wavelength exudes an existential nausea in stillness that anticipates Kiyoshi Kurosawa by a few decades. While horror films typically depict violence in cinema, these avant-garde works, especially Jack Chamber’s deeply disturbing 1970 film, commit violence on cinema, doing things to the celluloid medium that can leave both the viewer and the art form traumatically transformed. In The Hart of London, the horror erupts from the clash of human civilization and the great unknown that envelops it: an endless, brutal battle waged on multiple fronts: past vs. present, man vs. animal, wilderness vs. domesticity, surfaces vs. essences.

The film kicks off with a beautiful slow-mo shot of a hart deer leaping out of a forest into the town of London, Ontario, where most of the film’s footage was shot. It’s capture and killing at the hands of the locals sets off a snowstorm of archival photos and film footage, a cinematic blizzard superimposed double exposures, horizontal flips and negative inversions. Chambers’ achievement here is in making the most innocuous footage of small town Canada seem foreign and menacing, a frontier past whose contentious relationship with its environs belie the civic aspirations of its archival imagery. This maelstrom is set to a relentless soundtrack of crashing waves whose initial aural violence gradually settles the viewer into its steady rhythm.

The surf sounds eventually give way to the gentler but no less incessant gurgle of tidepools, introducing the film’s singularly most disturbing passage, where images of  children alternate with footage of sheep being slaughtered, a stunning juxtaposition of humankind’s aspiring mastery over life and death. Chambers orchestrates these dual modes into a flow made possible by the tidepool soundtrack and liquid superimpositions of body parts, vegetation and bodily fluids. A recurring theme of cutting recurs through footage of an infant circumcision, shrubbery being trimmed by giant scissors and a slaughterhouse worker sticking his blade through the necks of sheep, which segues to more brutal, bloody footage of an infant child yanked from a womb. Children frolicking in a too-blue swimming pool interspersed with blood red footage of aborted sheep fetuses (some indiscernible from human counterparts) and a heap of freshly-disemboweled sheep intestines still writhing in digestive activity.

The film’s last movement seems satirically vicious with its leering portrayals of domestic life: Canadians engaged in idiotic lawn games like barrel boxing; posing with their gardens or with a trespassing wolf they’ve killed; pointing at family photos and showing off caged canaries. Despite all the brutality that Chambers has envisioned up to this point, he seems to find these images of safe human home life just as horrifying in their own, somewhat lobotomized way, and in no way reassuring from what lurks beyond their papered walls. The final images of Chambers’ own children approaching wild deer at the edge of a park, as their mother repeatedly hisses “You have to be very careful,” leaves the viewer hanging in a tense, perpetual stalemate between mankind and the world around him.

THE HART OF LONDON is viewable in its entirety on YouTube

THE HART OF LONDON PART ONE (scroll down for other parts)


Continue reading “959 (101). The Hart of London (1970, Jack Chambers)”

Best of the Decade Derby: The Madness of revisiting a personal movie landmark

It seems that this project of sifting through a decade’s worth of cinema to determine its best films has me performing my own version of Krapp’s Last Tape. Last week a rewarding revisit to Donnie Darko became a flagellation of my past self. This time it’s the opposite. This is one of my favorite things I’ve written, for how  a personal recollection opens into a call for values that binds together the aesthetic, the political, and the personal.

Tuesday, May 4, 2002, 7:45 PM – Brooklyn Academy of Music, NY

A friend invited me to a gala screening of The Royal Tenenbaums in Chelsea, hosted by Esquire magazine as part of their special series “Legendary Menswear in Cinema.”   After two years in New York, I was tired of being a solitary cinephile with no connections to that greater network I knew was out there, and this event seemed like a good opportunity. But I was nagged by a Village Voice blurb about an obscure indie film depicting America after the first Iraq war. As I got in my car and made the half hour drive to Brooklyn, I kept asking myself why I was passing up a free Wes Anderson screening with cocktail hour and potential celebrity encounters to spend $10 to watch a movie by myself that I knew nothing about.   Lost in reflection, I took the wrong exit and arrived twenty minutes late. I walked sweaty and panting into a tiny, dark theater, where the silhouettes of the three other audience members were illuminated by the screen projection of two dead children floating down a river.

The rest of the film played like a continuation of my detour from the land of martinis and Legendary Menswear — and it couldn’t have been more different than the suffocatingly impeccable compositions of The Royal Tenenbaums (such a disappointment from Anderson’s looser, earlier films).   It seemed to come at me from all angles, employing one stylistic approach after another: documentary footage of a concert and a mega bonfire burning, parodic montages of military toys, Godardian declamatory dispensations of military statistics and homefront reportage clashing with shrieking Griffithian melodrama replete with iris transitions.

Gianvito launched every cinematic missile, bullet and slingshot he had at an insurmountable object, such that it went beyond breaking down Gulf War America, but the cinema itself and its inability to redress — or even address — our crisis. His actors, almost all of them non-professionals, were valiantly taking on roles that were more momentous than any one of them could embody.   And yet that gap became the implied subject.   Everyone was trying their best, and the effort on display attested to a collective attempt to film the unfilmable: the grief and despair of living in a desolate landscape cloaked in victory.   So hearteningly awkward, so heroic were their efforts – that even in their most awkward moments they exposed every commercial American feature — and most of the “independent” product that passes through the Sundance circuit – as calculated acts of cowardice.

This was the film that alienated me from mainstream American cinema, that made me despair at how hard it was to make a film that truly mattered . I’ve been scared to re-approach this film ever since (not that I’ve had many opportunities).   I finally re-watched it upon its recent DVD release this spring and the pain came swelling back again — a pain that comes from recognizing how much pain went into its making, so palpable in the results.   The feeling of being confronted with a global crisis so immense, so overwhelming that one is torn by both the necessity and the impossibility of expressing it. A movie that cries out for the need to reinvent the movies in order to reclaim its relevance to our problems.

One country this decade that has figured out how to convert national trauma into commercially successful cinema is – who else? – South Korea.   But until we see the American equivalent of Peppermint Candy (2000, dir. Lee Changdong), Gianvito’s film will serve as a road map, a cautionary tale, and a lost subgenre all to itself, waiting for artists who give a damn to draw inspiration from it.

– May 25 2005

I wrote these words just a few years ago but they seem to come from someone more idealistic, more naively clairvoyant than what I am today. He and I are separated by Just a few years and a few hundred movies.  The last few years have reaped an inevitable jadedness that comes through cinematic conditioning, a need to fall back upon standardbearers of excellence (narrative efficacy, cinematographic integrity, auteur authority, etc.) as a shortcut to engaging a film; sidestepping the process of planting and re-planting the film among limitless contexts and then selecting the one that just feels right for that film, that time, like the way I nailed it above with Mad Songs.

Watching Mad Songs last night, I admit to being more bothered than I was before with the clunkiness of some of the scenes and performances, to the point that I was second-guessing the directing, wishing it were tighter overall (this coming from someone who thinks every frame of Jeanne Dielman is essential). This may be a function less of my conditioned jadedness as a film critic, but as a filmmaker. The last few years have also brought many rounds of wanting things to be tighter in my own work (especially when targeting the YouTube audience). It’s ironic that my filmmaking endeavors have brought me to this state, because when I wrote those last two paragraphs of that review, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see myself as being an heir to that legacy I described, someday being able to produce “a movie that cries out for the need to reinvent the movies in order to reclaim its relevance to our problems.”

All of this is to say that Mad Songs feels even more foreign and foreboding to me now than it did then.  I’m not even sure I would say that it was enjoyable to watch this film again.  Sometimes I wish I had the unflagging fealty to certain films and filmmakers that some of my colleagues have (White, Knight, Uhlich, etc), the ability to summon the same unswerving assertions of value at the drop of the hat. I didn’t feel like I had a safety net of aesthetic principles to reassure me as waded through its protean polemic swirling in aesthetic fits and starts, some of which are executed much better than others.  It’s not a film that feels finished, something as masterfully engineered as something by Hou or Yang.  So I finished the film feeling genuinely troubled and uncertain of where it and I stood with each other. Except for the last 15 minutes, which are simply unassailable.  Those last 15 minutes are what Martin Scorsese’s been trying to say about America his whole career, and they are worth the entirety of Gangs of New York many times over.

But then I read this old review of mine.  And I was both saddened and heartened that an previous version of me could write something like this, that not only accounted vividly for what a film could mean to him at a certain point of his life, but how valid those arguments still were in light of rewatching the film, even if they had been lost on the present version of me.

Serge Daney made the famous distinction between the films that we watch and the films that watch us.  If only for the history that I have with this movie, Mad Songs is inescapably in the latter camp. How much that matters to whether I deem it worth of my placing it on the top ten of the decade – hell, as if that even mattered anymore, in light of what I’ve been confronted with by this film.  Not that I couldn’t find “objective” arguments to the film’s value as a lasting achievement in cinema; now that the past has chastised me, I find myself capable of writing a book about this film (too bad that BFI monograph series is defunct), offering all kinds of arguments on the politics of performance, narrative vs. documentary aesthetics, the ethics of polemical filmmaking and its unfashionability today compared to the days of Eisenstein or Rossellini, two directors Gianvito undoubtedly emulates. But it’s as if all of this were after the fact. It’s as if the only fact that matters is that I saw this film on May 4, 2002, a fact from which all else springs (and hopefully has yet to spring).  I hope never to forget this again.

958 (100). Moonrise (1948, Frank Borzage)

screened August 3 2008 on .avi

TSPDT rank #945  IMDb Wiki

Frank Borzage’s greatest films celebrate and investigate the miracle of romantic love; but perhaps the greatest miracle of his career was in generating a film of darkly stunning compassion upon one of the most wretched characters conceived in cinema. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark, in a proto-Method performance of inspired contempt for everything around him) is tortured throughout his young life by his father’s legacy of murder, which he fully inherits within the first 10 minutes of the film, setting off a downward spiral of guilt, rage and violent self-destruction. (The blueprints to Raging Bull are all over this film; a couple of shots seem practically plagiarized).

Borzage’s men have typically been roughewn jars of clay shaped and refined by feminine light, but Danny Hawkins is a festering pool of mud oozing from the film’s swampy environs.  He’s saved by Borzage’s ultimate faith in redemptive grace, embodied by the fiancee of the man Danny kills, who unfathomably falls in love with Danny despite nearly being killed by him in a stunning car accident.  Her unlikely attraction to him is made credible through our own, an empathy accomplished through Borzage’s ability to plant the viewer squarely in the passionate, angst-ridden hell of Danny’s worldview.

Starting with a wildly expressive flashback opening on through a series of terrifying crisis moments shot and cut with dizzying intensity (a swamp killing; a rainstorm car crash; a bedroom strangulation; a suicidal leap from a ferris wheel), it’s a world cloaked in perpetual night, virile in its violence, seductive in its shadows. The civic-minded sobriety of the daylight scenes, where everyone from the local sheriff to a self-exiled, swamp-dwelling Negro (a powerfully melancholy Rex Ingram) espouse liberal compassion for poor Danny, can’t compete with the allure of destructive darkness that pervades this film. Even the sentimental strings in the soundtrack, employed heavily during interludes of romantic redemption, stir reserves of disconsolate ache.  If the redemptive, sober climax that resolves the narrative feels less than fully earned, it’s because Borzage has perhaps succeeded too well at mining the bottomless chasm of a man’s affliction.  But such a degree of achievement in suffering wrought into art embodies its own salvation.

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